It is indisputable that Nintendo has another hit on its hands with its portable-meets-home console, the Switch.
The system has been selling faster than the company can make and ship units, and during E3, the crowds running to see the console verged on dangerous.
One might think the system’s success has to do with its blending of a home console and a portable gaming system, but I think it really comes down to how Nintendo is using the Switch to redefine and broaden the appeal of esports — a massively popular aspect of gaming.
To fully understand Nintendo’s approach to gaming, it’s important to go back to the 2006 release of the Wii, and what that console’s design said about the company.
The Wii was Nintendo’s leap from a video game console maker to a game and toy creator. That’s not a put-down — it’s a compliment. Gamers play video games; everyone plays games and with toys.
The company’s next console, the Wii U, was an unmitigated flop, but it did produce one very important game that helped shape the future of Nintendo: Splatoon.
Splatoon is essentially Nintendo’s family-friendly take on the first-person shooter, a genre usually riddled with bullets, blood and death. In Splatoon, you play as cartoon squids and try to out-paint one another in arenas with a variety of paint rollers and paintball guns.
It took the typically military design of a first-person shooter and changed the language into something more about fun and less about death.
Hisashi Nogami, the producer of Splatoon 2 — which is headed to the Switch — recently told me that the game didn’t even start out as a shooter.
“Rather we wanted to make a game that the widest range of players possible could enjoy — from young kids to serious gaming fans,” Nogami said in a recent email interview. “If that means as a result that we’ve created a game that players new to the shooter genre can enjoy, but also that shooter fans find satisfying, then that’s great.
"We also hope people watching this game for the first time feel that they’re invited into it. If that lowers the bar for the genre as a side effect, then we’ll consider that a success."
Splatoon also highlights Nintendo’s increasing desire to get into not esports, but competitive gaming.
It seems that in Nintendo’s view, esports is a rather inconsistent, sometimes indefinable sort of competitive gaming. It is, essentially what the console was before the Wii entered the market: a form of entertainment that isn’t exactly broadly appealing.
So while Nintendo supports esports — the company even held a first-of-its-kind world tournament in 1995, with the Nintendo World Championships — it doesn’t look like that’s really where the company is putting its energy.
Instead, Nintendo is focusing on competitive gaming. Reggie Fils-Aime, president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America, explained Nintendo’s take on the difference between the two.
“Competitive gaming is all-inclusive of people playing online or together in person, while the term eSports has grown to incorporate a broad variety of things, including participation, sponsorship, staging and underwriting, etc,” he said in an email interview. “It doesn’t always have a consistent meaning.”
The key thing here is that competitive gaming is a broader segment: It’s something everyone does, be they professional esports gamers or you and your family or friends.
And that is what the Switch is designed around.
“With Nintendo Switch, people can play anytime, anywhere, with anyone,” Fils-Aime said. “Multiplayer games like Arms, Splatoon 2 and Pokkén Tournament DX are great fun to play in a variety of settings, whether it is on the couch next to family and friends, online, at local fan-run tournaments or at larger events.
It’s this ability to play competitively on a single system anywhere, basically anytime, that will bring in more players to the Switch — and Nintendo knows it.
That’s probably why one of Nintendo’s key completely new games for the system is Arms, which essentially does for the fighting genre what Splatoon did for the shooter genre. Arms has players controlling spring-armed cartoonish fighters as they try to knock one another out in a mix of over-the-top arenas.
Kosuke Yabuki, producer of Arms, said that the game is a good fit for competitive play and a “very good game for people to play together.”
"I think in particular it’s a fun game to play on a splitscreen at home with your friends or family," he said via an email interview. "Obviously we have online modes as well so I think it’s a game that a lot of people are going to be able to enjoy.
“I think it’s only natural that if people get good at a game, they’ll want to show off, and if tournaments become a regular occurrence, then I’ll be very happy.”
Like the producer of Splatoon, Yabuki said it wasn’t the intention of the team behind Arms to lower the entry point for a particular genre.
Instead, he said, that was a result of the game’s design, which incorporates a third-person view, motion controls (like Splatoon) and a silly extendable-arm fighting style.
“I think two of the results of that are perhaps that this is a more welcoming fighting game,” he said. “At the same time, new techniques that we haven’t seen are going to rise out of that. It’s always the mission of Nintendo to be creating unique games and I think Arms is unique compared to a traditional fighting game.”
Fils-Aime said that anything that gets people more into having fun with video games is good for the video game industry, adding:
“While competitive gaming is important to us, what really sets Nintendo Switch apart is the ability to turn any coffee shop, dorm room or family road trip into a venue for some fun competitions.”
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.